From Unity to Twine, tools that allow individuals to create personal games are becoming more accessible and useful. Last week saw the launch on Steam of a simple program that allows just about anyone to create their own visual novels.
I have no programming ability and no great desire to make games. But I do enjoy writing novels in my spare time, so the lure of creating a visual novel is easy for me to take. TyranoBuilder costs $14.99 (Windows PC and Mac) and sells itself as a simple click-and-drop user-interface.
Following the program's straightforward tutorial, I was able to create simple scenes in which characters exchanged text dialog, and the player was invited to make choices that led to branching narratives. This is a really easy piece of creative software. The only downside is that you have to bring your own assets, meaning character images, backgrounds, music and, of course, story. There is a small selection of usable assets, but really they are just for tutorial level interaction.
Even so, there's no law that says your characters all have to look like something from Studio Ghibli any more than your dialog has to dance like Noel Coward's. You can have fun making stories with whatever stuff is at hand.
One reviewer on the program's Steam page talked about making a short story starring pictures of family members photoshopped onto fantasy backgrounds. This is the fun of making fiction, especially if it's just for personal use.
I spoke to TyranoBuilder's creator, Japan-based ShikemokuMK, who said that the program is a work-in-progress which is always being improved. "I'm looking into ways to allow easy sharing and importing of art assets and music in TyranoBuilder," he said. "High quality art is starting to appear in high volume, thanks to the growth of social networks."
ShikemokuMK said he was inspired by visual novels like Steins;Gate and the developer Key to find a way to allow people to make their own stories. "I once saw a visual novel adaptation of old Japanese literature that used backgrounds and music to convey the story. It made me realize that literature that's difficult in printed form can be more entertaining and easier to read as a game. My goal is to enable artists or writers who know nothing about programming to add stories and music to their work and express their creations as games."
The timeline-based program allows creators to post packets of dialog alongside character art and backgrounds, dragging intersections into place that move the action along, or that create divergent paths. Character art featuring changing facial expressions are slotted next to the appropriate dialog or action point.
"I'm trying to provide an interface that supports creativity," added ShikemokuMK. "For example, while writing the story, you can check a character's expression at any time, or preview music and sound effects. I think TyranoBuilder can stimulate creativity and help develop strong ideas and stories."
Visual novels have enjoyed their greatest success in Japan. Interaction tends towards simple dialog or action choices that create a path to separate story endings. This style of play has increased in popularity in the West through games like Telltale's The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones as well as the recently released Life is Strange. Although these games offer puzzles and even action sequences, and they usually have only one ending, they are also heavily reliant on the sort of dialog choices and story modes of visual novels.
TyranoBuilder is part of an effort to widen the appeal of visual novels and to place more power in the hands of non-technical creators to imagine and deliver their own interactive stories, outside the confines of traditional commercial games. "Because visual novels are easier to create, we're seeing new types of games appearing," says ShikemokuMK. "We're seeing visual novels that are updated daily like web-comics, one-off stories produced for special events, product marketing or resort brochures that are produced like visual novels and remakes of classic literature as visual novels
"Of course, more traditional visual novel games would be great, but I'm excited by the potential of things that fall outside the frameworks of traditional visual novels. Nothing would make me happier than for TyranoBuilder to help bring even a few more visual novels into the world, and for some of those games to become hits." he adds.
"I do believe that potential exists. These days, digital books have become mainstream and you can often select between ‘paperback' or ‘Kindle edition' when you purchase a book from Amazon. This might be too much to ask, but I think it would be great if a time comes when a ‘visual novel edition' option is available."